What a Heart Attack Can Teach Us About Culture Transformation


Years ago, I worked alongside a guy who could never say no to cheeseburgers. He sat at his desk most days and he always seemed to be battling some kind of cold or sickness. You definitely wouldn’t mistake him for a health nut. He knew he should probably make some changes, but it was just easier to keep doing what he was doing.

But one evening, while he was watching TV at home, he had a heart attack.

Thankfully, after a triple bypass and a few weeks in the hospital, he survived. But the experience scared him so much that he drew a figurative line in the sand and began to make drastic changes in his lifestyle.

He decided he would no longer stand for the sedentary lifestyle to which he’d become accustomed. Instead, he began taking daily walks around his office building.

And upon closer examination of his waistline, he knew his lunch choices had to include more salads and fewer cheeseburgers.

He even set up reinforcements to make sure that when he falters, there’s someone there who always has his back. He keeps regular appointments with his doctor to make sure his blood pressure and cholesterol levels are in check. He’s got a walking buddy at work who walks with him a few times a week. And he’s enlisted his wife as a personal coach and motivator to encourage him when he gets a little sidetracked.

If you ask him why he made these changes, he’ll tell you it’s because he got scared. Scared that he wouldn’t be around to enjoy his retirement or walk his daughter down the aisle. Not only is he getting healthy, but he’s putting preventative measures in place to prevent another heart attack from happening (diet changes, medications, exercise, etc.).

How Culture Change Is Sort of Like a Heart Attack

Cultural transformation is sort of like my friend surviving a heart attack.

To parallel my friend’s experience with the culture of an organization, if you have an organization with a toxic culture, THAT’S the heart attack. That’s the crisis. That’s the moment of truth when an organization has to draw the line in the sand and determine what they’re going to stand for and what things they will no longer stand for.

The actual cultural transformation is the equivalent of the operation and the healing and the lifestyle changes. It’s not easy. It’s not a quick fix. It takes time and effort and resources, just as changing to a healthier lifestyle requires a commitment of time, effort and resources.

At my company, Integrated Loyalty Systems, our cultural transformation process includes an initial assessment, much like a doctor’s exam, to establish a baseline or reference point so we know where we are right now. After that, there are other tools and strategies we help put in place that help the organization stay on track and ensure all employees are pointing in the same direction.

And just like my friend, there are continuous improvement processes that are key to a successful culture transformation. Things such as a strong service recovery program for when things go wrong; a clear Department Playbook so everyone is empowered to do what’s best for the patient and the organization; and, a robust New Employee Orientation program so we can successfully onboard new employees to adopt the culture from day one.

There are plenty of resources out there (including the services that my team and I offer) with the expertise and equipment to make your culture better.

But, like my friend who waited until he had a heart attack to make real changes, you have to be willing to show up prepared to do the hard work. Otherwise, apathy and indifference will set in.

And that can be the difference between organizations that succumb to the toxic culture and those that not only survive, but thrive.

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